Back in the day, you could see the ocean from just about anywhere. The homes were no higher than a dollhouse, and redwood and cypress seedlings had just been planted in the sandy slopes that rolled down to the sea. At the turn of the last century, Frank Devendorf and Frank Powers had formed the Carmel Development Company to attract artists, writers, professors and poets to their Bohemian retreat by the sea.
With the help of an earthquake that shook the artists out of San Francisco, a highway up and over the hill, and a couple of religious retreats, the one-mile stretch rising above a reprieve in the craggy coastline in the form of an arc of white sand, became Carmel by-the-Sea, a destination, a haven and, to some, a home.
One hundred years later, the city by the sea is an evergreen forest whose houses are still in close quarters, but many have added a second story to secure the view. The place has more tourists than townspeople, and a plethora of second homes that sit, like an abandoned bucket at the beach, waiting. The main thoroughfare, once a dirt road called Main Street, was paved and named after the ocean that forces the street's dead end.
Carmel is an anachronism. Due to the forces of nature and a fiercely protective population, it remains remarkably unchanged by time. It is the West Coast's version of Brigadoon, with its cobbled walks and alleyways, gingerbread houses and quaint boutiques, its bistros and cafes, and fog that billows in by afternoon.
Yet Carmel also is a thriving mini metropolis, with an international menu, Sunset Center, a world-class cultural venue boasting a roster of renowned festivals and events.
Carmel also offers a complement of historic hotels and nestled inns, and a legendary art community anchored by the Carmel Art Association, a diverse array of art galleries, and a cadre of local artists.
"The Carmel Art Association continues to bring Carmel history into the current art climate of Carmel, which is where it began, with the artists," said Susan Klusmire, executive director of the Art Association.
A town that "requires" a permit to wear high heels, that once forbade ice cream, chewing gum and bathing suits in public, has softened its dress code but not its standards.
Chain restaurants are forbidden, as is any other business whose architectural branding conflicts with the character of Carmel. Except within the Carmel Plaza shopping center, a mini mall where Tiffany & Co, Tommy Bahama, Talbots, Cole Haan, Coldwater Creek and Anthropologie slip in among local merchants, all within a carefully crafted framework.
Otherwise, locals and guests from around the world wander the walkable labyrinth of Carmel, visiting art galleries, shopping in boutiques, and tarrying in cafés before heading down to the beach at day's end to witness the sun sinking into the horizon, and look for the signature green flash that signals the end of yet another perfect day in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
"One of the best parts of working in Carmel," said Philip Geiger, who helms Rittmaster women's apparel, "is that we get to meet so many fascinating people from all over the world. Guests come into town for the music festivals, car shows, equestrian events, and golf. They are excited to be here, to take in and experience all that is Carmel. They genuinely get how special it is to be here, which reminds us how fortunate we are, as well."
Guests wandering the streets of Carmel are apt to see a young family or an older couple, a golf pro or a racecar driver, a musician, an actor, an artist, a Kardasian and, once in a while, Clint.